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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

A Conversation with former Digital Politics Guru Nicco Mele- Has the Internet Really Changed the Game?


A Conversation with former Digital Politics Guru Nicco Mele- Has the Internet Really Changed the Game?

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn


In our next interview we talked to the former Webmaster of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, Nicco Mele. While working for the Dean campaign, Nicco helped pioneer the use of social media in political campaigns to fundraise. After the campaign, Nicco co-founded a digital strategy consulting firm called, EchoDitto, that offered service to non-profit and corporate clients like Barack Obama’s Senate campaign, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Sierra Club. Nicco is currently a professor at Harvard where he teaches graduate classes on the Internet and politics. His book, The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath explores the consequences of living in a socially connected society. In our interview, Nicco questioned whether the Internet had transformed political campaigns and the film industry for the better. He referenced three books that he teaches in his Internet and Politics class to outline how the Internet has impacted political campaigns: The Move On Effect by David Karpf, Taking Our Country Back by Daniel Kreiss, and Victory Lab by Shasha Issenberg.

The first book Nicco discussed in our interview was The Move On Effect, which proposes a three-pillar theory for running an effective digital political campaign. Nicco recalled,

“One is build a big email list. You need a big email list because people live overwhelmingly in their inbox. The average American spends more than 30% of their time in their inbox… The other thing about email is that it’s measurable and repeatable and you can build behavior models to increase interaction. You can’t do that on Twitter or Facebook. If I tweet something I have no idea if you saw that tweet or not and so I can’t go back to you in a contextual way to tell you a greater story. Whereas with email I know if you opened the email, I know if you clicked on it and I can build a model to deal with you.”

“The second core pillar is online community. Karpf talks about this pretty exclusively in terms of blogs but I think it is a much broader decision besides just blogs. Online community is some sense about feeding the most rabid people in your community. The care and feeding of evangelist is essential in online success.”

“The third pillar is online/offline. Politics is really a face to face business and you really have to be able to use the Internet to drive people to meet face to face.”


Nicco also mentioned that to be successful at these three things, you need a nimble operation that contains a willingness to take risk, has strong analytic skills and aggressive in measurement. “Part of being successful on the internet is taking advantage of when things go viral. But who knows what makes things go viral? That’s obscure and impossible to measure. So you have to try a lot of things hoping some of them go viral and you have to measure them so when something starts to go viral you can poor gasoline on the fire and then you have to be able to measure that.”

Nicco then contrasted Karpf’s three-pillars theory for running a digital campaign with a list of 5 key elements that go into running any campaign (regardless of its digital component)

   1) Raise money    2) Have a message    3) Communicate the message through media    4) Deal with press    5) Field or turnout operation

Examining the list, Nicco posited that perhaps the internet has only had a significant impact on one of those elements: Raise money.

“It’s fundraising and that’s where both Dean and Obama broke through. They used the Internet to build an alternative vehicle for fundraising. And the message is still crafted with polling. The message is still delivered by television… And I bet if we made a list of the 5 essential elements of pulling off a film we could figure out how the Internet or digital changes those things. Pretty clear Kickstarter and Indiegogo, etc., are having some impact on the funding of films. Although exactly how much impact and whether it’s good is a big question for me.”


This causes us to wonder if the only thing filmmakers can really learn from the Dean and Obama campaigns, as far as digital goes, is that the internet makes it extremely easy to raise money. However, the Obama campaign was known for recruiting a historic number of volunteers to knock on doors and make calls for the campaign, and many of these volunteers were recruited through offline phone calls and one-on-one meetings with organizers on the ground -- not email. However, translating money into action is usually harder. Nicco pointed out that out of the approximately 6 million people who donated to Obama’s campaign in 2008, only approximately [400,000] people or around 10% made phone calls to their members of Congress to support Obama’s signature healthcare bill 8 months later. Nicco noted,

“There is this bizarre paradox which has probably never been true in American or maybe human history which is [that right now] giving 100 dollars is easier than doing anything else. Which is kind of lunacy and probably bad for democracy. It is definitely not healthy.”


Nicco is suggesting that although the internet has made it easier to contribute to political and film campaigns than before, it has not had a significant impact in motivating people to take action in politics or in film. For example, an astonishing 80% of Kickstarter films that get funded are social issue films, but how many Kickstarter donors volunteer to bring about meaningful change for the social issue film they donate towards?

This led Nicco to draw a contrast between the internet, which he views as an intentional medium and TV, which he defines as a persuasive medium.

“From a political tactical perspective, TV is persuasive in a way that the internet isn’t. I think the reasons are: 1) the internet is intentional and requires focus and television is not and the second thing is just scale and repetition. Television’s reach and scale still dwarfs the internet and everyday it’s shrinking. But I could buy commercials on 300 television channels and effectively reach two thirds of America. And to reach two thirds of America the online ad buy is essentially inconceivable [as far as] what would be required, and probably practically impossible. At that equation of scale and repetition is where TV trumps the internet. And the gap is so giant that TV could decline for 10 years and still be a more effective way in reaching people in a mass media kind of way than the internet because the internet simply isn’t mass media at all.”


In this quotation Nicco offers 2 insights about the new media vs. old media. 1) The Internet causes people to dwell overwhelmingly in the present. This leads to people not caring about traditional narrative structure -- everything from reality TV to how it influences the message. 2) Television is still the most effective way to persuade and reach a mass audience since TV networks and shows have a much larger audience than websites. Although the audience for TV is steadily decreasing, it will take a significant amount of time for websites on the Internet to pass viewership on TV.


In conclusion, our conversation with Nicco causes us to wonder if online organizing is perhaps not the most effective platform for driving people towards action. Although the Internet has been proven to be an effective tool for fundraising, the intentional nature of the medium results in people searching for ways to contribute through small actions like donating instead of offline action like volunteering for a cause. From our experience working on the Obama campaign, complementing online organizing with old fashion door knocking, phone calls and one-on-one meetings played a key role in motivating supporters to act beyond just simply donating online. This makes us wonder if filmmakers should consider how offline meetings or phone calls with their online supporters could motivate the audience to get involved in distribution beyond just donating or watching a film. We plan to explore what approaches are most effective for building offline relationships with audience members in order to propel them towards the action of distributing films in future posts.